The Consequences of National Humiliation

| May 2021
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The Consequences of National Humiliation, Joslyn Barnhart (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2020), 270 pp., cloth $47.95, eBook $23.99.

If a humiliated tree falls in a forest, but our methodological tools do not allow us to perceive or verify it, what of the tree? Does it exist? Can we study it? Should we care?

Fifteen years ago, in response to my question as to whether, despite the methodological challenges, the field of international relations should explore phenomena like humiliation more fully, the (rather senior) commentator on a panel hosted by the International Studies Association opined that the answer was an unequivocal and self-evident no. Emotions were, by definition, far too “fuzzy” to be studied properly. The possibility that we might use existing methodologies in new, creative ways—or develop new methodologies better suited to investigating these strange and amorphous phenomena—was not something we should even consider. His counsel? That we should focus on other exceedingly well-trodden topics instead.

While this scholar’s focus on “methodological fundamentalism” is highly problematic (suggesting, as it does, that the conventional and authorized methodologies of the field should determine what phenomena we study, rather than vice versa), it certainly is not rare. I suspect, in fact, that it is a perspective that Joslyn Barnhart may have encountered once or twice during her own research.

Happily, The Consequences of Humiliation is the perfect rebuttal. Providing a strong theory of, and multifaceted evidence for, the impact of national humiliation on global politics, this book not only contributes to a growing literature on the importance of fuzzy phenomena, such as emotions and status, to global politics. It also demonstrates the value of adopting a creative yet rigorous methodological spirit that both employs existing methods and develops/applies new ones to explore these phenomena. The result is a fascinating, clear, systematic, inventive, and thoroughly persuasive book that should convince all but the most recalcitrant methodological fundamentalists that understanding phenomena such as humiliation is essential for understanding how global politics functions.

Barnhart’s book focuses on one of the most visible effects of humiliation in global politics—the degree to which states adopt what she calls “assertive status-seeking strategies like the acquisition of status symbols and direct military conflict” in response to national humiliation (p. 10). Her core argument is that states that experience significant national humiliation demonstrate an increased likelihood of adopting a variety of clearly identifiable (and sometimes counterintuitive) patterns of behavior that are measurably different than the cases of comparable nonhumiliated control groups.

The most obvious implications of her findings center on the state level: if we want to understand why specific states pursued certain actions in a variety of historically specific contexts, we need to understand how the dynamics of national humiliation function. Barnhart further suggests that humiliation processes create systems-level dynamics (for example, what she terms the “international race for status”) that impact even those states that have no direct experience of, or relation to, national humiliation themselves.

Although not formally structured in this way, the book might be seen as having two main parts. The first part (chapters 1–4) offers Barnhart’s admirably clear theory of, and hypotheses about, the nature and effects of national humiliation on global politics, as well as a wide and diverse set of analyses that support her theory and hypotheses at the macrolevel (primarily through quantitative analyses based on methods and data drawn from multiple disciplines, including psychology, mainstream strategic studies, and others). The second part (chapters 5 and 6) then illustrates her thesis at a more granular level, by offering detailed qualitative analyses of the nature and impact of national humiliation dynamics in two very different case studies: first, in the behavior of France and Germany in the “scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century; and second, in the behavior of Russia during the Cold War. Notably, throughout the book, Barnhart not only offers evidence of her own theory but also measures her findings against the existing evidence supporting alternate theories and explanations.

The sum total of all of this is an excellent book whose main arguments and findings are well grounded, clearly structured and communicated, and highly persuasive. The book will be as welcome in an undergraduate or graduate seminar as it would be in the library of any researcher who specializes in global politics.

Of course, as an academic, it is an occupational hazard to wish that every book had done just a bit more, or that it had incorporated just one or two additional perspectives. So not surprisingly, some readers may wish that Barnhart had expanded her vision in a few ways.

For example, while the book employs a wide variety of methodologies, they almost all (along with the overall epistemological logic of the book) fall squarely within mainstream positivist traditions. Barnhart makes almost no mention of other highly relevant, if somewhat less mainstream, perspectives, such as critical/constructivist international relations theory, feminist IR, or postcolonialism.

Now there is nothing a priori wrong with this choice. And one advantage of it is that her argument is more likely to be easily understood by, and incorporated into, mainstream debates. The problem, however, is that all of those critical traditions provide theoretical, methodological, empirical, and normative insights that are not only highly relevant to the topic but that would substantially enrich her discussion of the nature and implications of national humiliation.

On the methodological front, a deeper engagement with these traditions would have, at a minimum, encouraged Barnhart to more rigorously and creatively develop the qualitative methodology used in chapters 5 and 6 in a variety of ways. More importantly, these critical traditions also offer distinct theories and explanations of the larger identity/difference dynamics that provide the broader context in which humiliation functions. They highlight, for example, the fundamental role that pervasive, but historically and culturally specific, norms of masculinity and respect (as well as other identity/difference categories such as those that are implicitly or explicitly racialized or “civilizational”) play both in theoretically explaining why humiliation functions as it does and in empirically determining why, when, how, and to what degree different humiliation dynamics play out in specific contexts and moments. All of these subjects, I would argue, are deeply relevant, even if one’s main goal is to explain and understand how humiliation functions in global politics. Consideration of these dimensions would thus have significantly deepened the book’s findings in a variety of ways.

One other area where readers may find the book’s insights wanting is on normative and policy questions. Because the research goal of the book is clearly focused on explanatory questions, its discussion of policy implications is essentially limited to two pages in the conclusion, and there is virtually no discussion of the normative/ ethical stakes at all. Moreover, because Barnhart examines only the escalatory side of responses to national humiliation (in other words, those that are aggressive and status seeking), her research does not offer any insight on what conditions/actions might predict/increase the likelihood of de-escalatory actions. Taken together, this means that some readers might be left with many of their primary questions unaddressed.

That said, I have never read a book that does not tempt one to raise these sorts of issues in one sense or another. So, rather than a critique, I pose them as an invitation. Should Barnhart mix in a consideration of some of the above perspectives into her future work, the results will be even more fascinating.


—Paul Saurette

Paul Saurette is a professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, where he teaches and researches a variety of topics in political thought, ethics, ideology, political communications, and international relations. His most recent book, coauthored with Kelly Gordon, is The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of the “Pro-Woman” Rhetoric in Canada and the United States (2016). He is currently working on a project provisionally titled Climate Populism: Populist Rhetoric in the Debate over Climate Action.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 35.1

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